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Friday, August 5, 2011


Dutch photographer Emile Waagenaar, an enthusiastic aficionado of Cajun music, is so passionate about the subject that he has traveled frequently from Breda in the Netherlands to Louisiana over nearly thirty years to photograph Cajun musicians.  About two years ago I became aware of his fascinating pictures, and he offered to donate a number to the National Museum of American History’s Archives Center.  He visited the Archives Center, and later I met him and his wife in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.  He donated 64 digital prints of his fascinating photographs to us.

Mr. Waagenaar, a commercial photographer in the Netherlands, loves Cajun music so much that
he began a self-assigned project to document Cajun musicians in 1982, photographing artists who play this regional style in New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana, Texas, and
elsewhere.  Over the years he has made many trips to the United States in order to seek out,
befriend, and photograph Cajun musicians in their homes, businesses, and concert ennvironments.  Since he fears that this music is at risk of disappearing as older musicians
die and other popular music styles attract audiences away from traditional forms and styles,
he has a missionary spirit with this project.  He hopes not only to preserve visual records
of some of the most important musicians and their environments, but to engender interest in
Cajun music on the part of those who view his photographs.  Through his dedicated, sensitive
efforts, he is performing an important cultural and historical service.  Many of his images
can be viewed on his Web site at

Waagenaar writes: 
“The Cajuns, descendents of French farmers and fishermen from Brittany and Normandy, France,
immigrated in the 16th and 17th century to what they thought would be their "Promised Land" of Acadiana in "La Merrique" (Nova Scotia, Canada), but their long journey ended in the
bayous of southern Louisiana.

“By keeping themselves separated from American society until the second half of the 19th

century, the Cajuns held onto their own culture. Their music has a unique folkloric quality,
which is enhanced by the musical accompaniment of a small type of Cajun accordion.”

Cajun music is often linked to zydeco music, which was influenced by Cajun music, but is

associated with people of Creole rather than Cajun heritage.  These musical styles have long
influenced American popular music, especially country music.  According to ethnomusicologist
Alan Lomax, “the Cajun and Creole traditions of Southwest Louisiana are unique in the
blending of European, African, and Amerindian qualities.” Originally Cajun music depended
primarily upon the use of the fiddle, but after World War II German-imported accordions
became available, and were introduced into Cajun bands, especially by performers like Iry
Lejeune.  The accordion is now at the center of both Cajun music and zydeco, while the
fiddle is the other primary instrument.  During and after the 1950s, Cajun music was
influenced by rock ‘n’ roll, forming a hybrid style known as swamp pop.  Cajun bands have
also been influenced by country music and the Nashville sound.  Later in the 1960s, however,
interest in more traditional Cajun music was revived by preservationists, and in 1968,
Louisiana finally officially recognized the value of its French heritage by establishing the
Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. In 1974, CODOFIL organized the First
Tribute to Cajun Music Festival in Lafayette.

Emile Waagenaar is not the first photographer to document Cajun musicians.  In 1938, Farm

Security Administration photographer Russell Lee documented Creole and Cajun culture in
Louisiana.  Others, such as Elemore Morgan, Jr., have photographed Cajun performers and
published books of their work.  Waagenaar’s photographs, both in black-and-white and color,
are sharp, well-lighted, well-composed portraits of sometimes idiosyncratic subjects.  They differ from the work of other photographers of Cajun musicians, who emphasize concert photography, documenting musicians in action within their entertainment context.  Waagenaar instead photographs musicians in their personal environments in order to convey more context about them as people, not merely as entertainers.  His photographs include visual information which will interest social and cultural historians, as well as historians of music, now and in the future.

Waagenaar has had a number of exhibitions of his work on Cajun musicians in Europe and the
United States. His aims are both aesthetic and historical.  He has tried to document the most important and innovative musicians, first among the generation of musicians who were the founders of Cajun music in the beginning of the 20th  century.  He writes, “After that I think it is important to have the second, third and fourth generation of these musicians.  Every generation gives…Cajun music another drive, but the people I want to photograph must…respect the old traditional style and stay close to that.  These days I use the Internet to find new musicians, but the best [way to] locate these people is talking with the musicians I already know…when I am in Louisiana.  Mostly I give them a phone call and explain my intentions.”

The collection consists of 64 inkjet photographic prints, both black-and-white and 
color.  They are beautifully crafted and include a wealth of detail—straightforward environmental portraits of people whom Mr. Waagenaar respects.   Although his subjects are rendered with dignity, sometimes unusual or quirky aspects of certain personalities and seemingly incongruous details also are displayed in whimsical pictures imbued with gentle humor.

Images, from top to bottom:
1.  Al Berard, Cecilia, 2008
2.  Ann Savoy, Eunice, 2008
3.  Matthew Courville, Carencro, 1997
4.  Paul Daigle, Branch, 2008

David Haberstich, Curator of Photography


  1. I joined Emile during his trip in 1998. The trip was an adventure for sure. One example: Whe've ended up in a little town in the middle of nowhere to make photo's during a live radioprogram in a bar. We open the door of the bar and the first people we look into the eyes are some close Dutch friends. They also traveled all the way to Louisiana to see some Cajun musicians performing live. Hilarious and unexpected moment.

    Best regards,
    Leo de Jager

  2. Bravo...good work and appreciate the blog.
    My wife Rena and I have known Emile and are familiar with his work. We are so grateful to Emile for the love he has for our heirtage, culture and our wonderful music.
    Rena and Kenneth Courville
    Carencro, Louisiana

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. In this very nice story you will find a link to my website with all of my Cajun photo's.
    It says: 'Many of his images can be viewed on his Web site at'
    But that site is not in use anymore.
    I am working on a new site, but till that time it is possible to watch them on this site:
    With best regards, Emile Waagenaar

  5. My new site about the photography of the Cajun musicians in Louisiana is: